“Annus horribilis”

In order to fight my recent increasing negativity, I chose to regard the reason for a concert diary devoid of concert as a semi-sabbatical. Nevertheless the result was a lethargy of body and mind that set into my existence; even that undying source of energy I inherited from my mother’s strong genes and usually surprise friends and students alike, seemed totally to desert me. Unexplainable aches and pains plagued me; every time I thought my bad-luck was over, something else went wrong... The only way ahead was to mimic the ram of my Zodiac sign, Aries, and head-down jump over each new ‘challenge’ as if it were a fence. 

 

JANUARY

The dish-washer caught fire in the middle of the night, as I slept alone in the house. The washing of all the cutlery, china and/or provisions in the cupboards in rooms adjacent to the kitchen, never ended: every item was covered in sticky black smoke. More worrying was the feeling of delayed shock which spiralled me into a constant ‘down’ mood. 

 

 

FEBRUARY

A weird occasion: that 1st trip of mine to St Petersburg: 3 lady-pianists soloists in one and the same concert. I must say, could there be a cleverest way of saving money than a “3-in-one” general rehearsal for an orchestra going on tour? Hardly. 

Never mind my having the most established career of the three, I was to start the evening by playing Mozart’s A major Concerto as an overture to Liszt’s “triangle concerto”- the E flat; following the interval came Grieg’s A minor.

Sad fact: due to time being too short – 2 nights stay was the most they would pay -- I had no chance to spend even an hour in the famous Hermitage Palace: all I managed on that one very frosty morning (-20° C) was a walk on the embankment of river Neva with a gentle friend.

“Thanks Mark: my confidence being so low, the chat we had over a cup of piping-hot chocolate cheered me up immensely.”

Later, on tour with the same orchestra each of us would feature alone in separate concerts, mine in Holland.

A break happened a couple of weeks later when ‘SOS-Ortiz’ was unexpectedly called in to replace a colleague -- booked for concerts in two different places – finally ‘Rach 2’ brought me twice over, some happy moments in Italy.

 

 

MARCH

A visit to Rome almost ended in my 1st ever legal case against a small conductor’s ridiculous abuse of power by cancelling me from ‘his’ concerts less than hour before the start for petty reasons, stupid misunderstandings... apart from seeing very dear old friends, who were as appalled as I was, an experience better forgotten all together.

 

 

APRIL

When I bought myself a folding bicycle I discovered the most enjoyable exercise for anyone living in a big town - no ‘stationary, crowded’ gym will do for me! I couldn’t stop finding chores, visits to make, shopping to do or errands to run in balmy, blissful warm-weather, London! 

Sticky moments. The 1st time I overheard a red bus coming up behind me and also noticed the traffic-light-island approaching ahead in the road: I froze and decided to stop short; another time as I tried to pick up my mobile when it rang in my pocket, I hit the wall; as I was about to pedal away a girl crossed in front of me, causing me to run onto the lamp-post... another moment I nearly broke a finger when I fell flat on my side from trying to go sideways onto the curb etc.

I confess this seemed all too hazardous, but they say practice makes perfect: so I must build up confidence as well as keep my eyes peeled.

 

 

MAY

Builders-from-hell: the refitting of my new kitchen (following that fire at my French home) became another depressing exercise: incompetent managing of the works by a (then) close friend, faulty/careless fitting of a new source of electricity; the painters missed plenty of areas and damaged my massive new fridge; due completion deadline went off-the-rails and was delayed by nearly 2 months.

Even the Livebox “burned-down” during a storm – with the loss of the, oh-so-indispensable Internet..

 

 

JUNE

The 1st of a few trips to Brazil this year could do the trick if for the fact that, following that recent horrible air-disaster I so dreaded flying with the same airline – silly, I know -- that I didn’t even find tranquillity enough to relax and enjoy my Music. 

I was to play Villa-Lobos’ MomoPrecoce -- his own transcription for piano and symphonic band -- with my friend conductor Abel, thus initiating a series of concerts in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Brazil’s foremost composer. 

A personal and very treasured moment in the month: while in São Paulo I had arranged – with the indispensable help of my beautiful niece Katia -- a surprise dinner-party on the birthday of Moema, the elder of my two daughters; who now lives in Brazil. To keep it small I had invited only a few close relatives, but both her father and Maya, her sister, flew down from London crowning the occasion with their unexpected presence.

 

 

JULY

2nd visit to Brazil: I returned to the festival of Campos do Jordão, commemorating 40 years of existence. ”On the menu” was the 1st of a series of my Debussy & Villa-Lobos recital-program. While in town I also gave 3 Master-Classes: it’s with the greatest of pleasures that I communicate experience to young pianists the world over; nevertheless that turns even more especial when it happens in my own country; the young ones are thrilled to work with ‘a name’, mainly linked to foreign land: although Brazilian I have lived abroad, the entire of my adult life.

At the end of my stay in the paulista capital, I duly prepared a private soirée to present at a friend’s flat – something due for quite a while when Afonso kindly sponsored my trip to perform in São Paulo: without which I wouldn’t have participated in the celebrations for the 20th anniversary of the demise of Magda Tagliaferro with whom I studied in Paris between 15 and 18 years of age.

This time he even brought in Zé Luís -- the best piano technician in São Paulo -- to look after their brand-new baby-grand US Steinway piano, which I happily inaugurated. Caio, my brother # 3 (you do realize I have 5?) a close friend of the host’s –– proudly introduced me to the chosen public of that petite soirée, recalling some of his favourite childhood memories: ie the moment when aged three I climbed onto the bench in front of the Bechstein at home, to replace our father, absent on a business trip, by playing ‘Happy Birthday’ using 2 hands for the 1st time, to the amazement of all present.

One ‘cool’ detail: I played it in F major having as I so often had heard him, with ‘b flats’ of course, how else? 

 

 

AUGUST

My 4th Workshop for young pianists, took place in my haven in the south of France: as usual 3 of the habitués brought new recruits. It looks as if this ‘convivial week of ‘work+ fun’ is now expected to take place every year. I realize that in spite of refusing any semblance of routine, even I must admit that, “bonding” for the sake of Music is an incredibly unique experience. 

3rd trip to Brazil: on my way to Belo Horizonte, rich capital of the state of Minas Gerais’ and with the help of a common friend, I planned a short visit to Tiradentes in order to spend some quality time with Anna, a delightful lady I had met when my husband and I visited the baroque towns of Minas, in the very happy early days of our marriage. Enterprising, she has always been; Anna now ensures appropriation of needed political support to transform properties into libraries. She has even help to create a lutier-shop where old string instruments are crafted or stunningly encrusted with mother-of-pearls or semi-precious-stones; aalso nurturing a growing interest in baroque ‘finds’: scores, early recordings, all sorts of local treasures, pretty much single-handed! And what blissful and confidential time we spent together! 

Then onto more Villa-Lobos, with a performance of Bachianas Brasileiras no 3 with Fabio Mechetti, who’s now doing wonderful work in Belo Horizonte: he had as usual very well prepared his orchestra and the concert went like a bomb!

To end that happy visit I had committed to another soirée at the house of some enthusiastically warm friends, the Asdentes, in São José dos Campos. This type of salon-concert, increasingly a favourite of mine, takes me closer to the life-style of my adored Chopin.

‘What are you playing’, they kept emailing to ask me... So much so that, as I sat down, I still didn’t know what I would play or in what order! 
I prefer to leave things to the moment when playing informally: it will depend so much on how I feel or what seems to be the favoured type of pieces that the present audience enjoys listening to. 
After a short break in the 2nd part of the recital, I surprised the listeners by asking if there were some suggestions that I might be able to comply with... more Brazilian, more French, some Brahms or some Chopin... I had also unashamedly brought some scores which I put in front of me to read from – no time to play everything by memory -- all the time! 

There’s a short piece written by Fructuoso Vianna, which Lucy the hostess, had heard me do at the QEH some time ago. She asked if I could include the work ... when she provided me with the parts I had to say yes. There are 3 lines written in one of the miniatures which, to the amusement and delight of the exclusive guests, I duly call: “Cocada .. é de côco .. é de côco da Bahia!”

The sharing of treats continued: Lucy also from Bahia, had catered for delicious ‘comida baiana’ (typical local cuisine): acarajé, carurú, cocada, among others; plus the indispensable ‘caipirinha’ (Brazil’s famed drink): that one item, of course, at my shameless request: “Obrigada, Lucy!

 



 

SEPTEMBER

At the end of August, two days after flying back to Europe, I was due in Bolzano as a juror of the Busoni Competition. The thought of listening for nearly two weeks to several young pianists who expect to break through to a career by winning it... had never meant happiness was on the cards ... At the last minute I was told Maria Tipo wasn’t to be President after all, her presence being the main reason I accepted to go, I was really looking forward to sharing musical thoughts...

Well, I do not enjoy ever letting people down; after a long telephone call from the director who explained the reasons, I decided to go anyway. His charming wife Daniela, was the icing on the cake: by pure chance she had been born in Brazil.

A near-disaster: following the first busy morning session, I got back from lunch with only two minutes to spare; as I rushed onto the hall I totally missed a step-up and crashed to the floor, hit a knee and nearly broke my right wrist, sandal flying to one side... After reassuring myself that nothing major had happened I told the horrified director who helped me up: “You see, maybe I shouldn’t have come”...

For the next two hours while listening to the afternoon candidates, I applied ice-packs to both the wrist and my painful neck (from the shock of the fall). Encouraged by two worried colleagues, I also went for a gentle evening swim of half an hour or so, the moment I got back to the hotel. 

It must have helped to soothe sore muscles because in the morning I had no signs of any damage – certainly it could have been very tricky. 

Nice memories: having discovered that the young hotel barman mixed a very respectable ‘caipirinha’ (Brazilian national drink -- v. August): what better way to relax after each day’s hard work? 

Laughing at everything and nothing in the company of the nicer of the jurors; delighting in masses of lemon ice-cream to make-up for the each-day-more-repetitive menu of the stifling restaurant; escaping 'the Bore’ ... seeking the company of the Invisible Man (never mind explanations) the days of hard work in picturesque Bolzano were rather nice.

In the days which immediately followed 'the Busoni', I had been asked to provide commentaries for BBC TV over another, more important contest, 'the Leeds'. Being so scathing about competitions in general I’m the unlikeliest choice to talk about any of them really... 

Apart from running back-and-forth to Leeds Town Hall or the TV studio -- or fretting over demonstrating the Concertos in the Finals, when I had not been told of the need for doing so -- those were two of the most incredibly busy days’ work in my life (takes and more takes ... this camera first, that one to follow ... please try not to swivel your chair... we heard a noise ... more ‘make-up’...), I certainly enjoyed sharing that studio/stage with Hugh Edwards, charming host and gentle Lucy Parham: “Thanks, guys!”

Back to France, where the 3rd edition of “C*O* et ses amis” was about to start. The lighter touch of ending serious chamber music concerts with Jazz-4-Fun – provided twice before, by the incredible input of my incredibly talented friend Werner H. was not to be: I had been really saddened when he told me was not able to join me this time. 

This time I had two of the most professional of the younger generation of musicians, Mei-Yi F. and Eliz C. coming to play; I also knew that having them around the house would be a delight. Without Werner there, I had no idea whether any light-music-fun would happen: what a relief when, after a bit of coaxing, both girls collaborated – the latter playing some jolly Irish gigs on the fiddle, while the versatile pianist improvised anything, anyone asked.

Painful detail: in order to get to a piano quartet formation, I had had to consider a fe players: two Brazilians came into the equation... in different ways. 

Clear (short version) result of the exercise: a lot of headaches and my conviction of never inviting another, unless I personally know them very well! 

 



 

OCTOBER

Villa-Lobos in Gävle, Sweden, was almost as touch-and-go as ever. The young conductor is another ‘product of el Sistema’ ... that shouldn’t necessarily mean that he is as good as Dudamel, should it? But people come from far to see these ‘’phenomena’..

I am not sure but I wouldn’t be surprised if this one couldn’t read music properly and learned everything by ear... certainly that was the impression I got. 

How can one rehearse with an orchestra a Concerto you don't know and if you can't speak English? Spanish ... is no good in Sweden! He had immediately told me he'd heard my old recording of it --"forget it" I said since I no longer play much like that -- honestly: from what I could tell he had not studied the score nor could he sing a single line of the accompaniment. Although the long road through to the concert was really scary, it went well, thanks to my experience and ... a lot of patience. Enough said. 

Next, I had three recitals in the Abbruzzo area of Italy – due to the earthquake which had hit the region earlier in the year, I happily accepted to cut down the fee, if only for the pleasure of visiting such wonderful, beautiful places. Also I think it was the first time ever, that I had the chance of performing a recital three times running (the Debussy + Villa-Lobos programme I was to play later in London’s QEH). It is a wonderful ‘luxury’ to live through repertoire this way: each new -- musical -- trip can be so experimental.

The highlight of the year though was a recital I was asked at very short notice to give at the gorgeous Palazzo Pamphilj which since the 60s has been the Brazilian Embassy in Rome.. Sponsored by a conglomerate of companies from Brazil, this turned to gold when they accepted to provide a Fazioli 278 which came from Florence, I think ... A beauty, whence I could extract sounds which were absolutely clear and brilliant like a diamond yet ... warrrm! Its pedals work with such perfection that I would associate then with ... those of a Masseratti ...er.. having not driven one, I am only imagining 'perfection' ... those of you who love cars, know what I mean!

Again I preferred to let my imagination run its course by informally announcing my chosen works, by associating ideas with moods, by coupling Brahms with Nepomuceno, Chopin with Fernandez or Debussy with Villa-Lobos. 

Because Scarlatti hadn’t figured in my repertoire for a long while and the recital was an Italo-Brazilian soirée, the only contribution I came up with was to play Villa-Lobos' “Garibaldi foi à Missa” as an encore; after explaining to the great amusement of the audience of ambassadors, ministers, consuls that although in Italy their hero goes to war, in Brazil he goes to mass... while eating ‘spaghetti wrapped in newspaper’.

Having played my soul to them, I was spoiled by everyone for the remainder of the evening. The occasion will remain one of the nicest memories I’ve had!

 



 

NOVEMBER

The programme in homage to the 50th anniversary of death of Villa-Lobos, for my recital in London was a combination of works by him and a 1st half of those by Debussy. The QEH has always been a favourite venue of mine where I appeared quite often in the past. Luckily so: to play a recital of that magnitude at a time of major (personal) troubles seemed a mountain to climb, but for the fact that still it felt like home and the knowledge that friends and students were present carried me through.

A few days later I repeated the recital in Cork. Arriving for the afternoon practice to try the instrument for the evening, there was a ... well... tuner.. who told me that the covered piano at the back of the stage was an old instrument; so I concentrated on getting used to the horribly ‘lose and loud’ new Steinway. Only on the next day when teaching a Master-Class on the same stage, that I realized the “old” instrument – to be used by me -- was a beauty! 

Knowing only too well from experience never to trust anyone, it’s hard to believe I got that so wrong! Live and learn... forever!

 


 

DECEMBER

This horrible year was coming to a close. Nice to go back to play in Tokyo and Beijing, again in homage to Villa-Lobos' music. Beautifully supported by each of the Brazilian local Embassies I was very spoiled by both the staffs; I enjoyed Tokyo’s Casals Hall (which I did not know) and had a magical time entering the ‘once sacred’ Forbidden City, where the recital took place.

Then one last concert at the Maison de la Radio in Paris, where I had offered to play a Duo recital with Meneses, in the 1st half of what was supposed to have been my solo recital: Antonio is playing the best I have heard him and since, ‘’modesty apart’’ (a Brazilian saying), I put myself in that same league, that concert turned out a most rich occasion. 

Wouldn't the Ambassador be too obvious an absentee at a festival with the support of the Embassy to honour Brazil's foremost composer? Extraordinary!

A final note.. 2009 came to end in a way very similar to how it started: I spent the New Year holidays ... all alone, for the 1st time in my life, ever. It felt as if I had not done nothing in life deserving happiness, or worthy of caring, respect or love... 

C’mon... 2010 - the year of the Tiger... will be a better one.

© G.Staffetti (2017 - 2019)

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